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3 Ways Stores Ruin Poinsettias + How to Pick a Plant That Will Last ‘Til Christmas

Right about now, there are boxes of poinsettias being loaded into the back of trucks, which will make their way to a store near you. Whether or not you end up with a beautiful plant that will last until the New Year depends a great deal on what happens when it reaches its destination.

You wouldn’t believe how often stores bungle the handling of poinsettias, from the way they’re unpacked to where they’re displayed and cared for in the store.

For an easy-to-care-for plant, it’s amazing how many retailers get it dead wrong.

A man pushing a card with boxed poinsettias on it.
Getting ready to be boxed up and shipped.

As in, your poinsettia will probably be dead before Santa is eating cookies in your living room in the middle of the night.

This holiday season, let’s look at the Dos and Don’ts of retail poinsettias. Knowing how they’re supposed to be handled can give us obvious clues they haven’t been cared for properly. Ultimately, this can help you pick a healthy plant from the unhealthy ones.

Poinsettias in cellophane wrappers.

1. What Does a Poinsettia Have in Common with a Banana?

No, it’s not the opening line of a bad joke.

One of the first things that usually go wrong for this year’s batch of poinsettias happens when they reach the store. As I mentioned above, they’re shipped packed in cardboard boxes. The boxes protect the delicate leaves during transit and also give a measure of protection from the cold.

It’s important that the plants are unpacked as soon as they arrive at the store.

Yeah, guess how often that happens.

Just like bananas, poinsettia release ethylene gas. Ethylene is an important plant hormone released throughout the growing cycle of poinsettia and controls things like when the bracts turn red and when the plant drops its leaves for the season.

If the plants aren’t unpacked right away, levels of ethylene gas can quickly reach a point where it will suffocate the plant. Opening up the boxes quickly is even more important if the plants had to travel a great distance to the store.

Much like those bananas that went from green to spotted in a matter of days, ethylene can drastically shorten the life of a poinsettia’s colorful display.

Unfortunately, once the plant is exposed to too much ethylene, that’s it for this season. There’s no bouncing back. If you bring one of these poinsettia home, you can expect a quick decline.

Woman's hand holding a poinsettia leaf.

What to Look For:

Suffocated plants look droopy and may already be losing their leaves. Skip these plants, especially if it’s early in the holiday season and they’re just hitting the stores. Pay special attention to the bracts (the colored leaves) and look for curling, limpness or dropped leaves. If you purchase a poinsettia where they wrap it up for you, be sure to unwrap it as soon as you get it home.

2. Hey, Let’s Put a Tropical Plant by the Door in December!

Poinsettia growing outside in the sunshine.

Most retailers treat poinsettias as impulse buys. You’re more likely to buy them if they’re right there when you walk in. It’s so easy to pop one or two $6 plants in your cart on your way into the store, especially if you weren’t planning on buying a poinsettia in the first place.

This is why we’re greeted by a bright display of red and green poinsettia when we walk into a store from mid-November right up to Christmas.

It’s a little less cheery when you know these poor plants are shivering in their nursery pots by the door, and it won’t be long before they decide to give up for the season and drop all their leaves.

Poinsettias are tropical plants and do not tolerate cold well at all. They prefer consistent temperatures between 65-75 degrees, and evening temperatures shouldn’t dip below 60. Placing them in a drafty entryway is one of the quickest ways to knock them out for the season. But hey, we’re just here to make a quick holiday buck.

A street vendor selling poinsettia outdoors.
If it’s cold enough for you to wear a coat, then it’s too cold for poinsettias.

What to Look For:

Purchase your poinsettia from a store that doesn’t keep them right at the front door. Hint – it’s not Walmart. You’ll have much better luck getting a plant that will last if it’s displayed somewhere in the store away from drafts.

3. It’s a Plant. Just Water It, Right?

In general, most big box retailers don’t feel the need to train their personnel on the care and feeding of a seasonal (and often disposable) plant that’s only in the store for about six weeks. Of course, this leads to poinsettias facing one of two watering fates.

A grumpy looking woman holding a tray of poinsettia in a store.
Go ahead, ask her when those poinsettias were watered last. I dare you.


We all know the holidays are a busy time, especially for those poor souls working retail this time of year. Let’s take a moment to remind ourselves to be extra patient and kind to retail workers this time of year. Anyway, getting back to underwatered poinsettia.

It’s not uncommon for poinsettia to be underwatered once they hit the shelves. The plants usually move fast and end up in someone’s home before they even need to be watered. But as we get closer to Christmas and poinsettia sales slow a bit, the plants are on display longer; it’s easy to overlook their watering needs.

Poinsettia with gold-foil wrapped bottomsn

Soggy Bottom Poinsettias

Poinsettias do not like wet feet. They’re quite susceptible to root rot. This is easy enough for you to prevent when you get them home. However, poinsettias come with a foil or plastic sleeve covering the nursery pot. While this protects the store floor and furniture, it’s not so great for proper drainage.

The plants end up being watered haphazardly and sit with water in the bottom of the sleeve for days. Root rot easily develops in these conditions leading to a shortened holiday season for your poinsettia or killing the plant outright.

Overhead view of white poinsettia.

What to Look For:

It’s easier to correct an underwatered poinsettia than one that’s too soggy. Stick your finger in the soil; if the top inch of the soil is dry, you can water it once you get it home. But watch out for plants with soil that’s completely dry.

Pick up the plant and pull the pot out of the sleeve; if there’s water sitting in the bottom, choose another plant. Look at the plant’s leaves; if they are yellowing around the tips or edges, it has probably been sitting in water.

Someone’s got a soggy bottom!

Buy a Poinsettia from Plant People

Man holding potted poinsettia in a nursery.

You often run into these problems when buying plants from your average big box store, the grocery store or a hardware store. And if a poinsettia is truly an impulse buy, it may not make a difference to you.

But if you want a poinsettia that’s going to last or you’re purchasing one as a gift, then it makes sense to buy them somewhere other than the big box store that just wants to move a seasonal item. In that case, look for holiday poinsettias from a local garden center or reputable nursery.

Rows of green poinsettia growing in a nursery.

Not only do these folks know what they’re doing, you’re more likely to walk out with a healthy plant that will last you for years to come. They will also wrap it up for you to protect it for the chilly ride home. Plus, it’s one more way to ‘shop small’ during the holidays.

In the end, even if your poinsettia drops its leaves early, all is not lost. You can easily tuck it out of sight for the season and let it go dormant. They are quite easy to keep growing year after year. You can even propagate your poinsettia if you want. Then next Christmas, you can cut out the irresponsible middleman.

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Tracey Besemer

Hey there, my name is Tracey. I’m the editor-in-chief here at Rural Sprout.

Many of our readers already know me from our popular Sunday newsletters. (You are signed up for our newsletters, right?) Each Sunday, I send a friendly missive from my neck of the woods in Pennsylvania. It’s a bit like sitting on the front porch with a friend, discussing our gardens over a cup of tea.

Originally from upstate NY, I’m now an honorary Pennsylvanian, having lived here for the past 18 years.

I grew up spending weekends on my dad’s off-the-grid homestead, where I spent much of my childhood roaming the woods and getting my hands dirty.

I learned how to do things most little kids haven’t done in over a century.

Whether it was pressing apples in the fall for homemade cider, trudging through the early spring snows of upstate NY to tap trees for maple syrup, or canning everything that grew in the garden in the summer - there were always new adventures with each season.

As an adult, I continue to draw on the skills I learned as a kid. I love my Wi-Fi and knowing pizza is only a phone call away. And I’m okay with never revisiting the adventure that is using an outhouse in the middle of January.

These days, I tend to be almost a homesteader.

I take an eclectic approach to homesteading, utilizing modern convenience where I want and choosing the rustic ways of my childhood as they suit me.

I’m a firm believer in self-sufficiency, no matter where you live, and the power and pride that comes from doing something for yourself.

I’ve always had a garden, even when the only space available was the roof of my apartment building. I’ve been knitting since age seven, and I spin and dye my own wool as well. If you can ferment it, it’s probably in my pantry or on my kitchen counter. And I can’t go more than a few days without a trip into the woods looking for mushrooms, edible plants, or the sound of the wind in the trees.

You can follow my personal (crazy) homesteading adventures on Almost a Homesteader and Instagram as @aahomesteader.

Peace, love, and dirt under your nails,